While Iran’s nuclear intentions are obscure, its failure to cooperate with the international community and reveal the extent of its uranium enrichment activities is clear. Iran’s President Ahmedinejad claims that Iran seeks atomic power for peaceful purposes. The rest of world is unconvinced.
According to some experts, Iran is now only a year or two from being able to manufacture its own warheads (although other estimates put the horizon at over a decade).
And the implications of a nuclear-armed Iran stretch considerably beyond its ability to directly threaten other states, such as Israel. According to expert opinion collected in the 2005 report, Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (Eds. Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson, Strategic Studies Institute), there are three threats that a nuclear Iran will compound, from the point of view of U.S. interests:
- It will encourage greater proliferation in the region, by example.
- It could drive up oil prices by feeling free to manipulate oil prices or by using its leverage to control sea passages.
- It could use increased terrorism to deplete American support for engagement of any sort in the Middle East. This would raise Iran’s power in the Middle East.
The authors of the report see the potential for “major wars” at the end of a competition between the United States and Iran.
Clearly, there is a pressing need to clarify Iran’s intentions. And yet, after three rounds of sanctions have failed to produce cooperation, it is worth taking stock of their ability to produce results.
Under sustained pressure by the United States, the United Nations Security Council imposed a first round of sanctions on Iran in December, 2006. Since then, two more rounds have been imposed. Reports suggest that these sanctions have had an impact on the health of Iran’s economy.
Existing sanctions, as reported in Haaretz at the end of September, 2008, include:
…an asset freeze on 65 companies and individuals linked to Iran's nuclear program, and a travel ban on five people. The sanctions also include a ban on Iranian arms exports, a ban on supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programs, and a ban on trade in goods that have both civilian and military uses.
In addition to the “stick” of sanctions, Iran has also been offered a “carrot” in the form of incentives, including greater trade opportunities and cooperation developing a civil nuclear program. These were initially dismissed when first offered in 2006. By the summer of 2008, it appeared prepared to consider the offer, put forth by a six-country group made up of Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (US, UK, Russia, China, France).
Nevertheless, Iran has continued uranium enrichment activities. Enriched uranium is essential for producing nuclear power for civil uses and in nuclear weapons. These actions have been accompanied by provocative rhetoric by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad.
At the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in the autumn of 2008, the Security Council approved a resolution confirming sanctions, and reaffirming its support for incentives if Iran stops uranium enrichment.
Iran inaugurated plans to develop nuclear power capabilities in the 1950s, under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. It developed its program rapidly, but the 1979 Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s forestalled further development until the late 1980s.
In 2003, the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency began conducting inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities. At that point, the IAEA discovered a number of violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As reported by the Nuclear Threat Initiative Organization:
"Iran admitted to having construction plans for two enrichment facilities, a heavy water production plant, a fuel fabrication plant, and undertaken research into conversion and enrichment activities (including centrifuges and possibly lasers)."
For the next two years, the IAEA, Iran, the United States and the European Union issued competing claims and statements about Iran's intentions regarding:
- The intended use of nuclear reactors being built at Bushehr, Natanz and Arak;
- The degree to which Iran had developed its ability to weaponize independently;
- Whether Iraq truthfully reported all of its materials and sites to international inspectors;
- If the issue should be referred to the U.N. Security Council for resolution;
- Whether the incentives, sanctions or even military action are proper responses;
Iran temporarily, voluntarily suspended development activities from November, 2004 to August, 2005, then alerted the IAEA that it was resuming activities. The IAEA Director General report that followed remarked on this, as well as reporting new findings. In September, 2005, the IAEA for the first time found Iran to be non-compliant with its NPT obligations, which made referral to the Security Council a possibility. The IAEA Board reported Iran to the Security Council in February 2006. A month later, Secretary of State Rice said there was "no greater challenge" to the United States than Iran's nuclear program.